Thursday, December 10, 2009


TITLE: China Gate
DESCRIPTION: Ten former soldiers are given one last chance to prove themselves as they are called up for a mission some 17 years after they last went into battle. But the enemy proves to be formidable in this Bollywood feature.
DIRECTOR: Rajkumar Santoshi
YEAR: 1998
RUNTIME: 179 min

At the outset, I should mention this was my first Bollywood film -- and in so being, a real treat simply for exposing me to a very distinct narrative format. And what a format! Within the first few minutes we get the dishonourable discharge of a group of soldiers (for cowardice in the line of duty), the tyranny of a fearsome bandit named Jageera in an isolated village, the bluntly portrayed suicide preparations of Colonel Krishnakant Puri, and finally the nick-of-time interruption of a woman seeking aid on behalf of her father, brutally slain by the aforementioned dacoit Jageera in an attempt to save their people.

And if this isn't dizzying enough, when the Colonel decides to help this woman, he does so first by sending letters to all his similarly dishonoured comrades -- so of course we're then treated to snapshot vignettes of the other men's lives, the whole of their respective characters encapsulated in brief, often comic archetypes. One's a drunk who can never pay his tab but talks grandly of his importance to the country; another can't hack it in security because he's just too damn tough; another still loves to eat and eat and eat... You get the idea.

Next to the earlier, immensely chilling scene of a boy wailing for his mother at the foot of his father's strung-up body, Jageera caressing the boy's tear-streaked cheek with a blade as vultures call for their impending supper, the antics imparted by these character sketches are striking -- even off-putting -- to the uninitiated. It will be another half hour or so before the Bollywood beginner gets a handle on the inner workings of such a tempo and atmosphere, to say nothing of the absurdly dramatic dialogue; and much longer before she'll be able to decide if this particular film uses those metrics of the genre effectively.

Because I haven't yet seen the 1975 hit Sholay -- the "Curry Western" itself inspired by Seven Samurai, and a great deal of the inspiration for this more contemporary Bollywood classic -- let alone any of the other contemporary offerings from the world's largest film industry, I simply want to comment on the metrics themselves. Specifically, what the blunt character-building conveys (in conjunction with the film's extraordinary run-time) is that the director's aim is to build an epic -- a sprawling story larger than any one person's journey -- but not an epic so serious it forgets the humour and the diversity of real life. Rather, an epic that off-sets any inherent pomp and circumstance with the cheeky humility of over-acting and full-out comedy.

In China Gate, this approach is amply confirmed by the Chumma Chumma song-and-dance sequence, an absolute jewel of a traditional interlude planted after a fleeting success emerges in the main plot (and yes, it inspired the "Chumba Chumba" song in Moulin Rouge). It's an extraordinarily enchanting performance: Unlike Western musicals, the female lead in a Bollywood dance number is often secondary to the main plot, creating the suggestion that the whole cast is "taking five" from the main action right along with the audience. And for all the fumbling and slap-shod fight scenes in the rest of the film, you can bet your top dollar the choreography in the dance sequences will be immaculate.

I have but one warning to the fellow, novice Bollywood-watcher: Don't try to look up the lyrics for the interlude song while you're watching the film. When the subtitles suddenly disappear from your screen, you'll be sorely tempted to find out that "Chumma Chumma" means "Jingle Jingle," and that the lead dancer is talking about how her jingling bells will steal a man's breath away, but DON'T DO IT. Research the lyrics in advance, or else wait until after the film, and just enjoy the performance while it's there -- otherwise you'll have to go back and watch it all over: Yes, the song-and-dance is that enchanting.

All in all, after my first experience with a Bollywood film, I'm left wondering about the strengths of the genre in comparison to very character-driven efforts in the West. I keep thinking especially of the Oscars, which notoriously subordinates the place of comedy in serious film. And then I think of the roots of cinema -- Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton: all masters of a form that blended slapstick with profound social commentary. And what of Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans, a timeless silent film masterpiece that matches heart-wrenching trauma with a drunken piglet run amok?

Which is to say that the blatant differences between Bollywood and Western cinema may indeed be quite contemporary; and while we may no longer critically acclaim those Western works that join blunt comedy with equally straightforward tragedy, this is no more an indictment against Bollywood than against our own, oft-forgotten cinematic past. In short, China Gate -- while likely not the best Bollywood has to offer, and perhaps a little long (though I'll know better when I get around to Sholay) -- most assuredly piqued my interest in watching more.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: A love of over-the-top-acting, ridiculous premises, hackneyed fight scenes, and singing and dancing!

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